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Angelenos get help with immigration, criminal record problems at LA legal clinic

SusanBroman via Flikr

A line of people snaked out door of the L.A. Law Library Saturday morning in anticipation of a free legal clinic which organizers said was the largest in the West coast.

They came from all over Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley for help with child custody cases, clearing their criminal records and immigration issues, among other problems.

“As you know almost everything in life now has a legal component to it, and most people cannot afford lawyers,” said Sandi Levin, the library's executive director. “So someone has to be in the business of teaching people how to learn what their rights are, how to navigate the judicial process and how to get access to justice.”

More than two dozen providers of free and low-cost legal services staffed booths at the event. Organizers were expecting about two thousand people to attend.

Smaily Vasquez got up early to meet with counselors from the Central American Resource Center, known by the acronym CARECEN, and apply for citizenship. Vasquez, 29, came to California from Guatemala as a child and did not realize until he was an adult that he had only resident status.

“I didn’t know about this,” Vasquez said. “We never thought about citizenship because we were kids.”

Daniel Sharp, CARECEN's legal director, and said it’s vital for immigrants like Vasquez to have access to trustworthy legal help. Otherwise, they may find themselves prey to fraudulent Notarios – individuals that pose as immigration lawyers due to a discrepancy in the services a notary provides in the U.S. and Latin America. Often, Sharp said, they botch what is often a person's single shot at citizenship.

“A lot of the victims we see have lost $5,000 or more which can be years of savings for a working poor immigrant family,” Sharp said.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles brought a group of volunteer attorneys to assist people with expunging their criminal records.

“What happens when folks have a misdemeanor or felony on their record it makes it difficult for them to apply for jobs or get hired for jobs,” said Phong Wong, pro bono director for the foundation.  Wong said that one chance can make the difference between landing a job and building a secure life versus struggling with unemployment.